NOTE: The bulk of this writing was taken from my review of the Canadian one-disc release of Iraq in Fragments, which can be viewed here. This domestic two-disc Special Edition adds a number of bonus features, though the main feature and technical presentation remain unchanged.
Compact and dramatic, James Longley's Iraq in Fragments gives us a surprising amount of access to a country in turmoil. Armed with only two relatively inexpensive cameras, one Apple G4 laptop, roughly 1.5 TB (yes, TB) of hard drive space, 300 digital video tapes and plenty of courage, Longley shows us three distinct portraits of the war-ravaged environment in just 93 minutes. As director, cameraman, composer and sound technician, Longley recorded roughly 30 minutes of footage daily for nearly two years, often editing and time-coding footage for translation while still in the field. It's a substantial achievement in solo documentary filmmaking---but if that weren't enough, this three-part story unfolds in a poetic, emotional and involving way.
Part 1, "Mohammed of Baghdad", is told from the perspective of an 11 year-old boy living in a dilapidated Sunni neighborhood. Mohammed is still in first grade after failing several times, since his attention is focused on working in a local auto repair shop to support his family. He holds his boss in high regard, even though he's beaten and verbally abused for his trouble in school. His father is currently in prison for speaking out against Saddam---and though we shouldn't be surprised, Mohammed is scared of the current conflict and occupation of his country.
Part 2, "Sadr's South", is a violent and abrasive look at the Shi'ite religious group led by Moqtada al-Sadr. There's some truly heart-stopping footage here, including a violent Shia raid on a marketplace brought upon by sinful sales of alcohol. Rejecting the idea of Western democracy, the Shi'ite people are depicted as fundamentalists, pure and simple. Tensions in the Baghdad neighborhood led Longley to head north after roughly one year of shooting, so it's no surprise that his tenure here didn't last as long.
Part 3, "Kurdish Spring", is easily the most serene and passive of the chapters. We meet a northern Iraqi family whose son tends sheep and works in hot brick ovens, earning his wages in lieu of school and religious rituals. The family dreams about the concept of true democracy, hoping for their future independence from the general Iraqi population. It offers a hopeful conclusion to the current occupation. Still, there's a sense of sadness: the young boy dreams of success brought upon by education, yet the weight of supporting his family has put his dreams on the backburner.
Longley's footage is beautifully shot, but it's the narrowly objective structure and style that really helps Iraq in Fragments stand out. Narration is strictly provided by the subjects at hand; combined with the revealing access and startling situations, first-time viewers will wonder just how the director pulled it off. Recorded between 2003 and 2005 (just after the occupation began, though Longley took a separate trip the year before to take still photos), Iraq in Fragments tells its story with a quiet grace, revealing real people instead of simple statistics. Nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, this critical favorite truly exemplifies "Reality TV".
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen displays, Iraq in Fragments looks very good for a one-man, low budget documentary. The warm color palette is natural but slightly oversaturated, while black levels are typically deep and consistent. Certain segments suffer from softness, digital noise and mild pixellation, but this is undoubtedly due to the source material and can easily be forgiven.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (also available in 2.0 stereo) gets the job done nicely, creating a surprisingly potent atmosphere during this dialogue-driven film. The audio during most segments is firmly anchored up front, while bustling crowd sequences, conflicts, and background music cues often provide a surprising amount of surround activity. Optional English, French, German, Spanish and Japanese subtitles are included during the main feature, though a few extras also include forced English subs.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the animated menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 93-minute main feature has been divided into three sections with six chapters apiece, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This two-disc release is housed in an unhinged clear keepcase and includes a promotional insert.
A number of new extras offer plenty of support, starting off with a feature-length Audio Commentary by director James Longley. This is a very insightful and informative track, as the director details many of the faces, places and troubles he encountered during the film's difficult production. From the expressive observance of young Mohammed to the complex politics of war-torn Iraq, there's a lot to understand and realize during Longley's chat. The director rarely lapses into silence, resulting in a detailed commentary that adds a new layer to the main feature.
Disc 2 is devoted entirely to extras, starting with "Sari's Mother" (21:02), an additional "chapter" of Iraq in Fragments. Presented with optional audio commentary by Longley, we follow a young boy and his mother as they desperately seek assistance from Iraq's tattered, disorganized healthcare system. The ten year-old Sari had been accidentally infected with HIV during a blood transfusion, while a maze of red tape has prevented his mother from procuring the proper care and treatment. It's a sad, sobering piece, so don't expect a cheerful ending to this story.
Next up is "Iraq Before the War" (14:19), which combines Congressman Jim McDermott's 2003 Iraq visit with a photo montage and retrospective narration by Longley. Filmed and compiled almost entirely before Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, this poignant collection of photos and video footage stands in stark contrast to what we see during Iraq in Fragments.
Ported over from the Canadian release is a Video Interview with Longley (19:49), hosted by film critic Robert Horton. Among other topics, we learn a bit about the film's early steps, the mounting difficulties during production and some of the equipment used during this one-man expedition. This is a fascinating chat overall---and though Horton generally plays it safe and doesn't have the most enthusiastic delivery, the director fields his questions quite nicely.
Closing things out is a collection of four Short Films by students from the Independent Film and Television College, the original Trailer for Iraq in Fragments (2:17) and a handful of Production Notes. All bonus features are presented in 1.33:1 and anamorphic widescreen formats, with forced English subtitles when applicable. It's a fine collection of bonus features, all things considered, and one that fans of the film will certainly enjoy.
Easily one of the better documentaries of 2006, James Longley's Iraq in Fragments does a fine job of sifting through the mess to present a detailed, finely tuned account of the Iraqi crisis from three different perspectives. Longley's footage is a miracle in itself, as it truly looks and sounds like the work of a complete production team. This two-disc Special Edition pairs a solid technical presentation with a strong collection of extras, offering ample support for the main feature itself. It's a polished and engaging release that documentary fans will appreciate, though anyone interested in life outside their own borders should consider Iraq in Fragments worth hunting down. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.